PROJECT CHANGELING: Chapter 3

The serialization of PROJECT CHANGELING: A SERENA KEILOR NOVEL continues now with Chapter 3:


3

Serena worked her way east from the grow op and caught a tram running inward toward the central core. The car was half full. She stood close to the door between two empty seats, holding on to the overhead strap. An old man sitting with a two-wheeled grocery cart in front of him glanced at her with tired eyes and looked away again. His cart was filled with stuff he’d gleaned from garbage dumpsters and unattended packing cartons lining the back alleys of the poorer neighbourhoods.

This was how the unemployable lived, scrounging leftover food to eat and stolen goods to sell in order to be able to stay off the streets and out of jail. She’d done it herself on more than one occasion while working assignments for Peter.

The old man was one of the people the socialists were beginning to talk about as they prodded at The Five for sacrificing the needs of the many for the comfort of the few. Dissenting voices in the face of the argument that The Five had collectively built an independent and self-reliant world from dust and rock, pulling a nascent colony up by its bootstraps—

The old man stood up abruptly and got off at a stop in a neighbourhood dominated by night clubs and massage parlors. An old rubber shoe fell from his cart into the track of the sliding door. A man disembarking behind him kicked it down into the darkness beneath the tram.

Serena sat through three more stops before getting off not far from the central core. She walked two blocks to a Goosens. Inside, she picked up a basket and eased into the garments section, not feeling particularly comfortable. She passed a mirror at the end of a row of jumpsuits and reluctantly looked at herself.

She thought she was twenty-two now, but she wasn’t sure. She was small, and her straight red hair, carelessly chopped, was thin and dry. She hated it, just as she hated her freckles and her pouchy mouth and her large teeth and her dark brown eyes.

Dirt eater.

She sighed at her synthetic stretch-knit bodysuit, black with grey diagonal stripes, and forced herself to accept the fact that she needed to shop for clothing that would be appropriate for office wear. Although she’d never gone undercover in one before, she’d been in offices many times and had observed the women who worked there. She knew the look, and although she disliked the look, it would have to become her look for the foreseeable future.

Mooching along the aisles, she picked out two pairs of cigarette pants, one white and the other green. While looking for a blouse she found two long-sleeved funnel neck tops, one in a sort of spotted print and the other in white, and a few long-sleeved T-shirts in a variety of pastel colours. She rolled them up one at a time and dropped them into her basket.

While browsing she passed several people similarly busy, flipping through the racks. Most ignored her, but a few spared a cross look, as though she were giving off an unpleasant odour (she wasn’t).

A middle-aged woman in an army surplus tunic began to follow her from row to row, baring her teeth as she worked up the courage to curse at her. Eventually Serena grew tired of it and stopped. She turned around and narrowed her eyes.

“Piss off or I’ll break your thumbs.”

“Filthy little dirt eater.”

Serena took a step toward her. The woman gasped and disappeared between the underwear racks.

It was the red hair, of course, and the freckles, and the pale skin. She had no control over the fact that she looked as though she’d been bred specifically for the planet and raised on a straight diet of red Martian soil. But since 11 percent of the kids who came out of the crèches resembled her (she’d looked it up once), it was apparent that the genetic engineers behind the scenes didn’t give a damn one way or the other how kids like her were treated once they were turned loose to fend for themselves. Or did they? Was it some kind of bizarre social experiment?

Sighing, she decided to look at footwear. At the moment she was wearing her flat-soled synthetic dancing shoes, durable and very flexible for occasions when she might need to be light on her feet, but she understood they would not be appropriate on the research and development campus of Stellarize Marté. After ten minutes of unhappy browsing, she settled on two pairs of low-cut slip-ons, one white and the other brown, in a brand she’d seen advertised for healthcare workers.

On the way out, she picked up a nondescript black backpack in which to carry her purchases. Touching her ring to a payment reader, she left the store. She slung the stuffed backpack over her shoulder and walked to the nearest tram stop.

The streets were now busy with traffic. She wove through a steady stream of pedestrians along the edgeway, dodging tricycles, ricks, and cargo wagons as she crossed each intersection. Overhead, a giant holographic image of a young man smiled at her, offering an open package of a popular brand of jackweed.

At the nearest stop, a tram was already there, taking on passengers. She slipped aboard just before the doors closed.

Hanging onto a strap as the tram picked up speed, she looked out the windows at the towers of the central core up ahead. Twelve floors was the limit for most buildings within the core, as opposed to six floors elsewhere in the dome, and they did indeed seem to dominate the cityscape. Serena had travelled to the core a few times on assignments, but she disliked having to pass through the security perimeter that separated it from the rest of Elysium.

It was said that most of the buildings in the central core had their own environmental control systems that would seal the structure and provide air and heat in the rather unlikely event that the dome suffered some kind of breach. She’d never had the occasion to check the rumour out, but she knew that residential buildings in her quarter had no such safety feature. If the unthinkable happened, everyone in her neighbourhood would die in short order. Why waste capital and equipment on the slums when the lower class was replaceable at very little cost?

Not a pleasant subject. Although the socialists never seemed to tire of shouting about it.

She got off the tram near the perimeter and walked to a restaurant called Antony’s. It was a fashionable place to eat because it was close to the embassy of Titan, and its menu featured notable Titanian dishes. She slipped into the alley alongside it and went in through the back. A line cook peered at her through a dense cloud of steam and nodded.

Bruno was at his station, chopping vegetables that likely had been grown in Peter Visquel’s op. He glanced up at her and kept chopping, the knife flashing as it reflected light from the overhead fixtures.

“I’ve got a new job,” Serena said.

“That’s good.” Chop chop chop chop chop.

“I won’t be around.”

“Okay.” He scraped the chopped pieces of vegetable into a big pan of oil and put it on the burner, then grabbed more vegetables and resumed chopping.

“Maybe I’ll see you again some time.”

He said nothing, concentrating on his knife work.

She left the restaurant, knowing he was already thinking about other females he liked to spend time with and wondering which one he should call next.

It had been that kind of relationship.

She didn’t really care that much about it, one way or the other.

It was time for her to go home and get some rest.

Big day tomorrow.


Want the complete e-book now? You can find it here.


PROJECT CHANGELING

Copyright © 2021 by Michael J. McCann

The Plaid Raccoon Press supports copyright, which protects creativity and the right of authors to profit from the fruits of their labour. Please enjoy this free sample and please consider buying an authorized edition of the complete e-book on Amazon. Thank you.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-927884-22-5

Visit the author’s website at http://www.mjmccann.com

PROJECT CHANGELING: Chapter 2

The serialization of PROJECT CHANGELING: A Serena Keilor Novel by Michael J. McCann continues now with Chapter 2. We hope you’re enjoying the story so far!


2

Peter Visquel led the way around the offices and down another long row of raised beds to a set of crash doors at the back. He leaned his shoulder against one of the doors, smiled at Serena, and preceded her into the washing room.

Robots loaded fully grown roots from the washing tubs into large carts, supervised by a small boy whose name Serena didn’t know. The produce would be taken into the drying room next door and then on to yet another room for packing and shipment.

A young female stuck her head through a door at the back, saw who was in the room, and disappeared again.

Peter sat down on a bench next to a washing tub that was in the middle of a load. Serena sat down next to him. Cleaning gel hissed from rows of nozzles, creating a white noise that would mask their conversation from the listening devices that were inevitable in most buildings in the domed city.

“Thank you for coming. I hope you’re well.” His eyes followed the kid herding the robots as they pushed their heavy carts into the drying room.

It had been two weeks since she’d last been here. Nominally she was an employee of Peter’s company and drew a salary from him, but in fact it had been four years since she’d moved out of her tiny room upstairs to work various detached assignments, as Peter liked to call them.

“Beginning tomorrow morning,” he said, “you’ll start a new job. You’ve been staffed as an administrative assistant in the artificial human project at Stellarize Marté. A new unit has been created with oversight functions, and your assignment will be to surveil the unit manager, Gabriel Morales. We believe he’s a spy passing information to Earth Intelligence.”

Serena raised an eyebrow. Another of the five corporations that ruled Mars with an iron fist, Stellarize Marté built and ran the shuttlecraft and interplanetary spaceships that kept Mars connected to the rest of the solar system. They also ran the dirtside tram lines in each city. They were a very powerful and highly secure organization. Working undercover inside their research and development campus would be problematic, at best.

Reading her mind, Peter nodded. “Do what you can. We can’t get electronics in there, so human eyes and ears will have to do. Your eyes and ears, my dear.”

“All right.”

Serena had come from the domed city of Hephesto to live with Peter when she was approximately eight, a crèche kid with no parents and no future. For ten years she’d worked for Peter, doing odd jobs at first before moving up to quality control checks on the vegetables and supervising the robots like the kid in the next room. She’d also been forced to sit impatiently through Peter’s classroom sessions. She’d loved the math but hated the language lessons. Nevertheless, she now spoke six and could read and write in several computer languages as well. Not to mention sign language, semaphore, Morse code, and other less obvious forms of communication.

Peter was a believer in redundancy. Having alternate channels of functionality available in case of interference or systems failure helped him sleep better at night.

On what they’d decided was her eighteenth birthday, Peter handed her a ring that would open the door of a living unit in the southwest quarter. He told her that she now worked for MIS, the Martian Intelligence Service. Her training (is that what it had been?) would enable her to work as an undercover operative. Peter would be her handler.

The assignments had been simple to start with, but over the last four years they’d become progressively more challenging.

“What’s my cover?” she asked, folding her hands in her lap.

“You’ll use your current name and address. It works, so we’ll stay with it.”

“Is there a team?”

“As far as you’re concerned, you’re on your own. We believe Gabriel Morales has been working for Earth Intelligence for some time now. We think he’s been put in place to steal data from the interstellar spacecraft and artificial human projects. We think he may be about to make a major delivery before being removed to Earth. His last big score. Stellarize Marté is vulnerable, and we need to stop him now, before it’s too late.”

“All right.”

Peter fingered a pendant that hung around his neck. Strung on a length of twine, it was a cabochon stone cut from blue lace agate. It was one of his few personal possessions, and during the time that Serena had lived here, the kids speculated that Peter’s late wife had given it to him before her death. No one knew for certain.

“Because it’s Stellarize Marté,” Peter said, “you’ll be thoroughly scanned entering and leaving. Since no electronic devices are allowed into the workplace, you yourself will be our recording apparatus. Memorize everything you see and hear, and report to me on a regular basis once you’re clear of their surveillance.”

Serena nodded. She had an excellent memory and had handled similar tasks for him in the past.

She watched the boy come back in from the drying room, followed by two of the robots. He was tiny and thin, as Serena had been at that age, and his hair was as red as hers.

Peter’s eyes followed him across the room. “Pablo has been doing well in training, and he’s ready for some simple assignments. We’ll start with the laundromat you once asked me about. Do you remember?”

“Yes. I wondered why it was always closed, even though the blinds were sometimes open. You told me it was a call stack. You were laughing when you said it.”

“I was, yes.”

“It took me a while to understand what you meant. An information drop.”

Peter nodded. “Pablo will set the signal and service it: a piece of green plastic in the doorway at the back of the building when the drop is clean and ready. Leave the ring in an empty food container next to the dumpster, and move the green plastic to the corner of the building to tell him that it’s ready to be picked up.”

“All right.”

Peter tucked the pendant back inside the bib of his coveralls. “This will be our last face-to-face for the foreseeable future. Understood?”

“Yes.”

“Take no unnecessary chances, Serena. I’ve grown much too fond of you to lose you now.”

She stood up. “You say that to all the kids.”

“Just the best ones,” he replied.


Want the complete e-book now? You can find it here.


PROJECT CHANGELING

Copyright © 2021 by Michael J. McCann

The Plaid Raccoon Press supports copyright, which protects creativity and the right of authors to profit from the fruits of their labour. Please enjoy this free sample and please consider buying an authorized edition of the complete e-book on Amazon. Thank you.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-927884-22-5

Illustration credit: BUMIPUTRA/Pixabay

Visit the author’s website at http://www.mjmccann.com

PROJECT CHANGELING: Chapter 1

As promised, we continue the serialization of PROJECT CHANGELING: A Serena Keilor Novel by Michael J. McCann. For your holiday Monday reading, here’s Chapter 1!


1

Serena Keilor quietly let herself out of Bruno’s living unit and sealed the door behind her. He would sleep for at least another hour before awakening to find her gone. After that, he’d head off to work and forget about her until the next time he told himself he needed her.

She walked down the corridor past other doors, her flat-soled shoes silent on the filthy tile floor. The smells and sounds of claustrophobic human living filled her nose and ears. Stale perspiration, rotting garbage, cooked food, and jackweed smoke. Loud voices from a vid program. A baby crying behind a door marked with colourful graffiti.

She reached the stairs and headed down. Bruno’s living unit was on the fourth level. Six floors was the limit for housing structures in Elysium City, and she was just as glad he didn’t rate a unit at the top. The sex wasn’t good enough to justify walking up and down the two extra flights to get it.

At ground level she let herself out onto the street and glanced both ways before turning left. Above her, the pale light of another Martian dawn filtered through the dome. In this part of the southeast quarter, most of the streetlights were out, broken by vandals and never repaired. She kept to the shadows, moving confidently along the street in a northerly direction.

Giant air vents rumbled overhead, out of sight above the buildings. It was a sound she no longer heard. Her ears were tuned instead to the skittering of vermin foraging in the garbage, distant voices rising and falling, and footsteps that scraped and faded away.

After twenty minutes she reached a neighbourhood that was less residential and more retail. The buildings were two storeys, three at the most, and included storefronts for food, clothing, entertainment, and various services.

An empty public rick sat outside a gambling café. She touched her ring to its lock and the door opened. It was a two-seater, front and back, a little more expensive to use than a singleton, but she got in anyway and sealed the door.

“Gateway Station.”

“Sixteen credits, please,” the rick said.

She touched her ring to the payment reader. The engine started, and the rick pulled away from the curb.

At this time of the day, traffic was still light so she made it to the station in only a few minutes. She followed a small group of people through the front entrance. On her left was a ramp that led up to departures, and on her right was another that led down to arrivals. She took the narrow passage between them and walked into the food court. About a third of the tables were occupied. Seeing nothing suspicious, she headed toward a row of washrooms along the far side.

She picked a door and walked in. A woman stood at a wash basin, considering her reflection in the mirror. Two stalls were occupied, and the others appeared to be empty. She stood still for a count of ten and then abruptly turned and pushed back out into the food court.

No one was nearby. No one appeared startled by her sudden reappearance or quickly turned around or looked the other way.

Somewhat reassured, she walked through the food court and out the other side of the building.

Gateway Station was like a large blister on the dome wall where the southwest and northwest quarters met. Shuttles flew every hour to and from the other domed cities on the planet, and a special line operated between Elysium, the capital city, and Marsport, the original settlement that now served as the spaceport for interplanetary traffic.

Gateway Station was a fairly busy place at any time of the day or night, and it was useful when trying to lose surveillance. Outside, on the north side of the station, Serena leaned against the wall, watching people come and go. As she stood there, a tram arrived from the inner city. It stopped, hissed, and released a flood of passengers from its many doors.

She waited until the flood had passed and a second wave had entered the tram for its return run into the central core. She watched it slowly pull away from the station. Then she took the overhead walkway to the north side of the tracks.

If she had a tail, they were damned good about it.

She trekked through the northwest quarter, following a long and indirect route until she stood outside a two-storey building with a sign over the front entrance:

PV Root Production Inc.

Everything looked normal. She walked around to the back of the building and used her ring to gain access through a door marked for the use of employees only.

She followed a short hallway down to a set of plastic-and-metal double doors. She slipped through them into a large space configured for factory work.

PV Root Production was a grow op for edible roots, some original to Earth and others genetically engineered to flourish under Martian gravitational conditions. They were one of many second-wave businesses licensed by Ares Inc., one of the five corporations controlling everything that happened on Mars, to act as local producers in the domed cities. Ares had decided it would be an effective business strategy to spread out the wealth a little to small-fry entrepreneurs covering specific sub-sectors like edible roots, rice, fruit, or other such food commodities. It reduced transportation costs from Isidium City, where Ares was headquartered, and it established a decentralized network of subsidiaries under innocuous neighbourhood banners.

Despite what the socialists said, The Five were continually working around the edges of their public image to maintain an appearance of benign paternalism.

She walked down long rows of raised beds containing plants in various stages of growth. Random insects circulated, intent on their pollination responsibilities. She reached a central area with glassed-in offices and stopped.

An old man in one of the offices looked up from his desk and saw her standing there. He removed his spectacles, stood up, and shuffled out to meet her.

He was short and stooped. His long white hair was tied back with a colourful bandanna. His coveralls were stained and tattered, but his hands and sandals were immaculate. He walked with a limp, favouring feet that were cursed with nasty bunions and corns.

“Serena,” he said, his nasal Isidian accent heavy and familiar, “how nice to see you again.”


Want the complete e-book now? You can find it here:


PROJECT CHANGELING

Copyright © 2021 by Michael J. McCann

The Plaid Raccoon Press supports copyright, which protects creativity and the right of authors to profit from the fruits of their labour. Please enjoy this free sample and please consider buying an authorized edition of the complete e-book on Amazon. Thank you.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-927884-22-5

Illustration credit: Joshua Sortino/Unsplash

Visit the author’s website at http://www.mjmccann.com

Project Changeling: Prologue

As promised, we now begin a serialization of PROJECT CHANGELING: A Serena Keilor Novel by Michael J. McCann. For your holiday weekend reading, here’s the Prologue!


PROLOGUE

Elysium Planitia — 6.04° N Latitude, 77.2° E Longitude

How many hours had he been walking? He had no idea.

He turned to look back at the way he’d come and saw a long, serpentine trail of dust particles still hanging in the air, disturbed by his passage, slowly falling back down to the surface of the never-ending plain. Could he not even walk in a straight line?

He sipped water and ran his tongue over his lips. The breath collection cup near his chin on the inside of his helmet still worked, taking in carbon dioxide and water vapor from his breath so that his suit’s life-support system could vent the CO2 and recycle the water, but the air entering his helmet through the valve behind his head was getting dangerously low on oxygen.

He wasn’t sure how much time he had left until he asphyxiated.

They thought they were being humorous when they allowed him to put on the lifesuit before dumping him out of the shuttle and taking off, leaving him alone in the middle of the Elysian desert. The suit’s battery had shown about a 40 percent charge left in it, but that had waned to 19 percent as he’d walked, and it wouldn’t last much longer. The internal temperature was already dropping, and very soon he’d begin to experience symptoms of hypothermia.

They’d caught him surveilling a dead drop being used by one of their spies, a man believed to be working inside Stellarize Marté to steal corporate secrets and sell them to Earth Intelligence. He thought he’d found a perfect observation point behind a row of dumpsters in the mouth of the alley across the street from the drop. The best he could figure was that they’d spotted him from above, either with a drone or from a window in the building behind him.

He should have told his father what he was doing. He knew that now. A fatal mistake. The old man would be very, very disappointed.

His mind began to wander, and after a long while he realized he was on his knees, slowly rocking from side to side.

It was very cold. He couldn’t breathe.

He thought about his girlfriend, Marissa. He loved her so much. The future with her had looked so incredibly bright.

He thought about his parents, how sad his mother would be and how guilty his father would feel for having allowed him to join the Service in the first place.

He closed his eyes and listened to music inside his head, a song he’d never particularly liked but that seemed to insist on dominating his mindspace right now.

He opened his eyes and saw dirt pressed up hard against his helmet visor.

He’d fallen forward, apparently.

He closed his eyes again.

Before long, he fell into a deep sleep from which there would be no awakening.

Elysium City — NW Quarter, 86B Street, Block 17

He watched from the shadows with his only eye, unbothered by the passage of time. He’d been here for hours, perfectly still, scanning the wicast bands, listening to faint sounds around him, watching for movement.

The only significant activity had occurred ten hours ago, when a squad had surrounded a young man hiding behind the dumpsters at the other end of the alley. After a brief scuffle, they’d pulled out their captive and marched him away, unaware that they were being observed.

He’d waited all this time for something else to happen, but nothing of significance occurred.

The colour of the dome above the rooftops began to deepen toward charcoal as darkness fell.

Communications flowed across the bands but remained routine and not related to his location.

He wondered why the young man had been hiding. The back-channel chatter of the men who’d captured him had indicated that his discovery was an unpleasant surprise, but there was no information to suggest what he’d been doing there and why they’d been so upset about it.

He filed it away for future analysis.

A tricycle turned into the alley, ridden by an old man in a soiled white dhoti and a sleeveless undershirt. The basket on the back of the trike was filled with odds and ends the man had picked from the trash. His long white ponytail swished across his back as he slowly pedalled up the alley and out the other end.

An hour later, with nothing else happening, he left his observation post and followed the shadows back to his warehouse.


PROJECT CHANGELING

a serena keilor novel

Michael J. McCann

A Solar Salamander Book

The Plaid Raccoon Press

© 2021

Project Changeling is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

PROJECT CHANGELING

Copyright © 2021 by Michael J. McCann

Solar Salamander © is an imprint of The Plaid Raccoon Press

The Plaid Raccoon Press supports copyright, which protects creativity and the right of authors to profit from the fruits of their labour. Please enjoy this free sample and please consider buying an authorized edition of the complete e-book on Amazon. Thank you.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-927884-22-5

paperback ISBN: 978-1-927884-21-8

Illustration credit: Cmst May/Unsplash (salamander).

Cover image: alexaldo/Thinkstock

Visit the author’s website at http://www.mjmccann.com

SOLAR SALAMANDER: a new imprint from The Plaid Raccoon Press

Here at The Plaid Raccoon Press we’re pleased to announce the arrival of a new imprint, Solar Salamander, to carry our upcoming speculative and supernatural fiction titles. As with all Plaid Raccoon publications, Solar Salamander Books will be published in paperback and e-book formats.

“We’re excited by this opportunity to expand into a new genre,” said Lynn L. Clark, partner and editor at the Plaid Raccoon, “and to bring a new, fresh approach to our book design not only for upcoming science fiction titles but also our supernatural fiction.”

At the same time, Ms. Clark said the approach to marketing will be somewhat different than it has been with recent crime fiction titles by Michael J. McCann in the March and Walker Crime Novel series.

“Our first publication under the Solar Salamander banner,” she said, “will be Mike’s latest novel, PROJECT CHANGELING, and we intend to post the first few chapters right here on this blog. We’d like readers to have a chance to get into the story and see if it’s something that appeals to them.”

The full novel will be available through the usual e-book and paperback points of sale. “We don’t have much control over the price of our paperbacks,” Ms. Clark said, “given the state of the book publishing industry today, but we do have control over our e-book prices, and PROJECT CHANGELING will be sold at $0.99 USD right from Day 1. Price won’t be a barrier for this book.”

Follow this blog for more news and the first appearance of PROJECT CHANGELING, coming up very soon!